The antebellum South was on the road to agricultural ruin, and the Civil War put a brick on the gas pedal. In Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South
(Oxford University Press, 2018), a sweeping reassessment of some of the oldest questions in U.S. historiography, Erin Stewart Mauldin
draws on ecology to help her offer a fresh, powerful explanation for why a region that produced so much wealth for centuries became characterized by widespread poverty in the late nineteenth century. She argues that cotton plantations were hardly ecologically sustainable enterprises, yet their habits of shifting cultivation of staple crops and free-range livestock husbandry were better suited to the region’s nutrient-poor soils and oppressive climate than the prevailing land-use practices of northern farmers. But when the war came, the crisis southern farmers had kept in the offing arrived quickly at their shores. Both armies sustained themselves by emptying the South’s granaries, devouring its animals, and razings its forests and fences. Cotton agriculture would never be the same. That is partly because the resources needed to restore it were gone, but also because freed people would not consent to returning to working in gangs on operations large enough to resume shifting cultivation and, when renting or sharecropping fragments of former plantations, refused landowner’s demands that they labor under contract after harvest to maintain the ecological integrity of someone else’s property. So the region turned to growing more cotton in more places and more intensively than before the war and depending on costly fertilizers to do so. Subsistence practices vanished, migrants fled to the cities, and debt ruled the land.
Erin Stewart Mauldin is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. She is book review editor of Agricultural History
and the co-editor of A Companion to Global Environmental History
Brian Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison where he is